This article proposes to refine the concept civil society by discerning three distinct forms of civil society in the past. This refined conceptual framework counters the criticism that civil society suffers from its growing popularity and its broad definition. The usefulness of these three forms of civil society—which are based on the later work of Jürgen Habermas—are applied in this article on the seventeenth-century Low Countries. The central question is how these forms of civil society acted as schools of democracy in the seventeenth-century Spanish Netherlands and Dutch Republic. The three types of civil society are identified that developed through time and built a cumulative tradition of civil society. These are the medieval craft guilds (liberal civil society), the early modern civic militia (republican civil society), and the modern Enlightenment sociability (deliberative civil society). Data about the associational life in two cities in the Low Countries, Mechelen and Rotterdam, show that different forms of civil societies had different functions according to the societal context. Furthermore, the data show that societies with civil societies characterized by social inclusive boards and high mutation ratios had less political impact when they lacked links with existing political institutions. This implies that civil societies did not as a rule serve as schools of democracy.


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pp. 59-81
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